African Oral Epic Traditions: Form, Significance and Universal Correspondences
Affiliation: University of Ibadan

That the African epic exists is no longer in doubt, courtesy of great efforts by renowned scholars of African oral literature like, I. Okpewho, B.M. Ibitokun, K. Berber, R. Finnegan, S. Biernaczky, C. Bird, J. William Johnson, etc. Early civilization in Africa, like elsewhere, was characterized by sporadic inter-tribal wars, communal conflicts and general psychosocial insecurity, etc. The volatility of insecure environment and the necessity for social order had compelled codes of conduct that found expression in the mores and vision of the society, with commensurate reward that encouraged competition and promoted champions among peers. They defined and determined societal acceptable best practices which, in turn, the daring, the courageous men and women of valor, had seized upon to become distinguished. It foregrounded their recognition and subsequent elevation as "protectors" and warlords, heroes, heroines, some deified. It gave birth to different forms of artistic expressions including the different sub-generic forms of panegyric/heroic poetry, the most profound being the oral epic. Celebration of the heroic in non-literate societies is the primary thematic preoccupation of the epic narrative performer(s). The African oral Epic is a communally shared experience to the degree that such songs of great exploits, etc., are woven around the subject, and are meant to inspire and encourage participating audience to more heroic deeds. The oral epic poet/performer draws from common myths and legends with the purpose of elevating the heroes to a mythic pedestal of deities and communal inspiration. This paper draws attention to the African oral epic traditions, the apparent striking similarities and areas of cultural divergence between the African and other epic traditions of the world, in particular, the concept of "the hero" and what constitutes "the heroic". It argues that the epic traditions had existed in Africa like elsewhere, way back into early civilization, before the intercontinental bridges of multiculturism were erected. It attempts to offer a sociological dimension to comparative study in oral epic traditions in Africa and other selected cultures of the world: (the classical Greek, the Anglo-Saxon and medieval English societies, as a case study), the magnitude of which, hitherto, was either taken for granted, or did not occur to epic scholars in Africa. The study draws attention to the migratory pattern and the emerging faces of the epic hero/heroine, as well as the form of the African epic in contemporary African society and literature, with emphasis on sustainability and relevance of the epic tradition today. Similarly, the paper argues that although there are no fire-spitting dragons, and supernatural forces to contend with now, the reality in modern Africa has shown there are fundamental psycho-social and economic challenges of insecurity it is faced with. It concludes that there are sufficient grounds for epic scholars to come together at an international forum like this to share experiences and interests with a view to forging effective interculturism that further strengthens the promotion of global peace.